Monday, 1 December 2008

Fearsome and featherbedded - a Canadian ski Odyssey

The craggy looking skier who rode the lift with us to Eagle's Eye was concerned that we should not bite off more than we could chew.
“First time in Kicking Horse? Take the long easy trail to the bottom, take a look at the other runs on the way and see what you feel comfortable skiing. This is a pretty steep terrain.”
We nodded politely, thinking that we didn't really need telling. My wife and I have been around the skiing block more times than we care to remember and, in any case, we were aware of Canadian resort's macho reputation.
But his advice was far from redundant. Some ski areas turn out to be less challenging than their piste maps suggest. Not Kicking Horse. Though there are alternative routes which by pass its most daunting slopes its average pitch is among the steepest you will encounter. Several times, as we completed runs classified blue for intermediate, we shook our heads in wonder that they were not marked with a single black diamond, signifying advanced.
Mastering them does wonders for the confidence. Witness one visitor from Edinburgh who confessed that when she first approached the mountain she was as timid as a gazelle. A week into her holiday she was skiing with all that animal's grace and the courage of a lioness too.
This will be only the eighth season since the modest ski hill which served the small British Columbia railway town of Golden was transformed by the opening of a huge new gondola lift. The vertical drop from summit to village is now 4,133 feet (1,260 metres), the biggest in Canada after the twin mountains of Blackcomb and Whistler.
It follows that the base area is relatively unexploited, with only a handful of places to stay and eat. These include the Highland Lodge, opened by a Scot and his American partner, which incorporates a pub cum restaurant with an impressive range of single malts. You might be tempted to drive down to Golden, whose economy is based mainly on timber and the trans-Canada railway. It's a bit of a one horse town, though it is worth dropping into the shop which advertises second hand sports gear as “pre loved”.

We had begun this two week tour of four resorts with a complete contrast. The Alberta town of Banff is lively, full of bars and eateries, and attracts significant numbers of British tourists. The huge and wonderful Banff Springs Hotel alone has more restaurants than Kicking Horse and probably accommodates more guests. And while it has plenty of tricky challenges, the terrain at Sunshine Village, its principal local ski area, is generally kinder on unseasoned legs.
The original hotel was built to attract sightseers to the Canadian Pacific Railway. It quickly attracted the rich and famous. A memorable publicity shot from the 1930s shows Ginger Rogers, perched on a fallen tree sketching a Blackfoot Indian chief in full headdress.
You can spend a diverting hour or so just wandering its labyrinthine corridors, admiring massive buffalo heads on its walls, the gleaming brass tube system for delivering mail between floors, the stone pillared Mount Stephen banqueting hall with its suit of mock armour where you could imagine some tormented prince spending his days hammering out Rachmaninov - and wonder how many Hollywood stars and heads of state had done the same. You can spend your evenings without ever leaving it, eating anything from sushi to Schnitzel.
It's not too easy to getaway to the slopes in the morning, either. Only the truly obsessed skier would rush the immense breakfast buffet. Mount Norquay is the closest ski area to town but Sunshine, which is about a 20 minute drive and has a reputation for good snow conditions, is more extensive. You could also stay in Banff and ski at Lake Louise, which is 40 minutes west along the Bow River Valley and is bigger and better still. but we were booked to stay at the Chateau there.
Like the Banff Springs, Chateau Lake Louise was built for Canadian Pacific. In summer the lake by which it stands, with its reflection of the glacier beyond, is one of North America's most photographed scenes. The Louise in question was Queen Victoria's daughter. The nearby skiing is magnificent, particularly in the high bowls after an overnight storm, with terrain suited to all abilities. Test your agility in the boulder strewn Rock Garden, cruise on lovely wide, fast runs such as Larch.
And after a hard day it is worth summoning up the energy to go snowshoeing in the forest after dark - preferably by moonlight – with a resident guide who points out animal tracks in the snow.
Our final stop was Marmot Basin, across the glacier flanked Icefields Parkway. Though its slopes are best avoided on Saturdays, when hordes pour in from Edmonton, the nearest major city, it is among the most remote and stunning areas anywhere. The first impression is that trails are frustratingly short, but closer acquaintance reveals that this is not such a drawback, even for accomplished skiers and snowboarders, as there are lovely routes through the trees.
But even if conditions are less than perfect it would be compensation to stay at the isolated Jasper Park Lodge, again a short drive away. The complex is spread out along a lake. In the mornings we passed elk, browsing on the grass outside our room as we made our way to breakfast.

Though it has changed much since, it made a huge impression on that pioneering skier Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who put up there between the wars. His 1925 entry in guest book recounted how respective residents of New York and Pittsburgh arrived at the Pearly Gates, to be told by St. Peter: "I am sure you will like it" the other that "it will be a great change for you". Finally came a man from Jasper Park Lodge, "I am afraid" said St. Peter, "that you will be disappointed."
(This itinerary was organised by Edinburgh-based Ski Independence - 0845 3103030/

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